Op/Ed: Ground Zero workers need our support

Bergen County Record
Thursday, September 14, 2006

By Laurie Gindin Beacham
FIVE YEARS AFTER the Sept. 11 tragedy, we are called upon to remember not only those we lost, but also those who continue to suffer the long-lasting effects of that awful day. Among them are first responders, volunteers and workers who tirelessly toiled day after day, sometimes for months, near the smoldering pile at Ground Zero, breathing in the toxic air.
Thousands continue to experience devastating illnesses like severe respiratory disease, gastrointestinal bleeding and cancer as a result. A study released last week by Mt. Sinai Medical Center finds that roughly 70 percent of recovery workers tested suffered lung problems. Experts have warned that some may develop cancer as well. Despite the ongoing documentation of devastating Ground Zero-related illnesses, some government officials continue to deny any definitive connection.
Misleading information
What's worse, workers were initially misled about the air quality near Ground Zero. A week after the tragedy, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was assuring people that the air was safe, when the City's Department of Environmental Protection reportedly disagreed, and later tests showed the air was still heavily contaminated at the time.
Other agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the New York City Department of Health, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation also issued misleading reassurances, even while officials reportedly knew that preliminary tests of the air, dust and water in lower Manhattan revealed troubling results. Those tests found considerable amounts of asbestos and heavy metals in dust samples.
With the New York Stock Exchange only blocks from Ground Zero, many believe that the rush to get Wall Street open again led to the severe compromise of the health and safety of workers.
Thousands of these workers, once lauded as heroes, were essentially abandoned by their government and their employers.
Sadly, two primary programs aiding people injured or made ill near Ground Zero – the former September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and New York State Workers' Compensation – proved woefully inadequate for many. Both had strict filing deadlines and eligibility requirements that shut out many workers.
And while the workers' compensation deadline was recently extended for some cases, the time extension is not nearly enough to take care of many sick workers. It will take an intense outreach program to notify all affected.
The extension excludes many, including employees who had to return to downtown jobs before the air was safe. Moreover, those who are in fact covered by workers' compensation and need wage replacement for lost work time often find those benefits inadequate. Some workers still work despite illness because they cannot afford to lose their health insurance and salary. Some companies also have denied any connection between symptoms and Ground Zero exposure.
Lawsuits filed
Stymied by the obstacles of these programs, thousands of Sept. 11 workers have now gone to court against contractors, New York City and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for failing to provide a safe workplace, as required by law. Residents, office workers and students from lower Manhattan have also filed suit against the EPA for misleading them about the air quality.
These lawsuits ask not only for fair compensation, but also for the implementation of critically needed medical monitoring programs, which no government agency has so far provided.
Let's hope that as the desperate health problems of workers and volunteers are finally recognized, our judges and juries will be able to step in and help these workers where the government has failed them so miserably, affording them at least some measure of justice.
Laurie Gindin Beacham is communications director for the Center for Justice & Democracy.

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